Who Will Be the American Justin Trudeau?

With a restless Democratic base leaning left, party centrists are looking for their Justin Trudeau — a candidate who will seem progressive while preserving the status quo.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan arrive at the 2018 NATO Summit at NATO headquarters on July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Sean Gallup / Getty

In 2015 Canada’s traditional ruling party was returned to power amid considerable fanfare at home and abroad. While the ensuing excitement undoubtedly owed in part to the figure of Justin Trudeau — a kind of walking listicle-generator who may well have been engineered via algorithm deep in bowels of Buzzfeed HQ — it was also the product of a successful political strategy which saw the Liberals embrace left-leaning rhetoric around taxes, spending, the economy, and social policy.

Unlike other recent efforts from the political center (notably Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated 2016 presidential run) Trudeau made a professed desire to tax the rich and fight inequality a central theme of his campaign, and reaped the electoral rewards. When examined in detail the Liberal program was in fact fairly modest and has only grown tamer in government. Yet by embracing the language of redistribution and activist government, albeit in vague and qualified terms, Trudeau successfully convinced large numbers of Canadians that they were voting for a progressive, left-wing agenda — a narrative that came to be channeled in media coverage both during and after the election.

With the 2020 presidential election looming and the available evidence suggesting that the Democratic base is considerably to the left of the party elite, some centrist Democrats will very likely look to Trudeau’s charade as a model to be emulated. If a genuinely egalitarian agenda is to prevail, it’s worth examining the what the Liberal feint was and how it succeeded.

The Liberal campaign of 2015, for all the hype it generated, was anything but radical in tone. Nevertheless, a carefully crafted platform incorporating language about taxing the rich, spending more on public goods, and rejecting austerity gave many ordinary Canadians a different impression while simultaneously reassuring elites they had nothing to fear.

For one thing, it promised to raise taxes on “the wealthiest 1% while cutting them for the middle class,” and to close loopholes benefiting the rich. In the realm of social policy, Trudeau championed the Canada Child Benefit — a means-tested cash transfer — as a way to help low-income families. The platform’s biggest theme was arguably deficit-financed investment in “social infrastructure,” supposedly signalling a break from prevailing economic orthodoxy and (for some commentators) a bold embrace of activist government.

Parts of the plan were mostly illusion from the get-go. While the language of the “1 percent” vaguely hinted at Occupy-inflected class rhetoric, the corresponding policy actually amounted to a net reduction in income taxes. Though the government did create a new bracket for incomes over $200,000 a year at a marginal rate of 33 percent, its “middle-class tax cut” also lowered taxes on incomes between $45,282 and $90,563, a move whose biggest beneficiaries were ultimately those in the top 10 percent of incomes — hardly the “middle class” as most people understand it, and certainly not the poor. Tax loopholes, such as one that allows compensation earned through stock options to be taxed at half the regular rate (mainly used by lushly paid corporate executives) have remained open despite the Liberal commitment to close them. Late last year, supposedly in response to Trump administration policy, the government also unveiled billions in corporate tax cuts — hardly the behavior of a left-populist administration.

With childcare widely inaccessible and cripplingly expensive across the country, the Canada Child Benefit was a particularly resonant campaign promise. While it is indeed a cash transfer to low-income families and an improvement on the Conservative-era benefit it replaced, Trudeau advanced the policy in explicit opposition to the universal public model being championed by his rivals in the NDP, declaring, “When it comes to child benefits, fair doesn’t mean giving everyone the same thing, it means giving people what they need.” While this no doubt sounded intuitively correct to some voters, it in effect meant leaving Canada’s inefficient, pricey, and market-driven childcare model intact while offering subsidies to some families worth a maximum of a few thousand dollars a year (childcare in Canadian cities outside Quebec can easily cost $1,000 a month or more).

Trudeau’s supposed embrace of deficits and Keynesian economics employed a similar sleight of hand. While the government is indeed running deficits and pursuing an infrastructure program, it has channeled billions into an infrastructure bank designed to attract private capital and even hinted at the mass privatization of public assets. The once-promised “social infrastructure” and stimulus spending that enabled Trudeau to rhetorically repudiate austerity has therefore taken a back seat to an effectively neoliberal model of public spending.

What was innovative about this strategy was the way it channeled widespread concern about poverty, inequality, and an economy rigged towards the rich while ultimately offering little to meaningfully address those problems. For some, it appeared to reflect the same priorities as the NDP platform — which included among other things the creation of national childcare and prescription-drug benefit programs — allowing the Liberals to absorb and neutralize competition to their left. (The NDP, for what it’s worth, needlessly compromised its own program and created space for the Liberals by promising balanced budgets).

After more than three years in government, Trudeau’s Liberals have done little if anything to alter the economic fundamentals of the country or significantly improve material conditions for most of its people. Nevertheless, the prime minister has made a regular habit of issuing pronouncements about inequality at international conferences that seem deliberately choreographed to maintain his 2015 brand. In a similar vein, his government has also introduced rather misleadingly titled “national strategies” for both poverty and housing that are far less grand in scope than their labeling suggests (essentially amounting to a series of small subsidies and new metrics).

A combination of superficial gestures, bad-faith promises, skillful branding, and political sleights of hand, Trudeau’s inequality scam has proven a resounding success.

How might an opportunistic Democratic politician looking to win over the base while reassuring corporate America launch their own phony war on inequality in the 2020 primaries and beyond? Justin Trudeau’s strategy offers us some clues.

Instead of simply ignoring or rendering poverty, inequality, and public goods secondary to his brand, Trudeau has made them central, even faintly invoking the language of class to that end. But despite going to great lengths to show how much he recognizes people’s problems he has always remained assiduously vague about how he intends to solve them and adopted a decidedly nonconfrontational posture towards corporate Canada and other powerful interests in the process. While appearing to embrace core progressive concerns, particularly around taxes and social policy, he has quietly doubled down on all-too-familiar neoliberal shibboleths and policy thinking — rejecting universality and leveraging a phony language of activist government.

With potentially transformative proposals such as a Green New Deal and Medicare for All on the table in the US ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and an anxious donor class tugging in the opposite direction, it’s all too easy to imagine centrist Democrats looking to Trudeau’s example. If the American left, broadly defined, wants to avoid a repeat of Canada’s experience it should be vigilant about the prospect of phony wars on inequality — and settle for nothing less than the real thing.